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Are People Managers in India Ready for Change?

Are People Managers in India Ready for Change?

Is India ready to embrace a composite workforce with robots and humans, diverse demographic segments, and public-private sector talent sharing? Professor Chandrasekhar Sripada, Executive Director of ISB’s Human Capital and Leadership Initiative (HC&LI), provides his expert views.

ISBInsight: If you look at current trends in human capital and technology, what are some takeaways for people managers in this environment?

Chandrasekhar Sripada: Almost in a manner of prescription, I believe the first thing people managers have to do is to embrace the new technology more proactively, instead of being anxious about it. Adopt technology and don’t resist it. Human beings will continue to be masters of technology. We will not let robots rule us.

That scenario might be OK in the realms of anxiety and science fiction. Is it possible? Perhaps. But at the end, human society will endure. We have to master technology for the twin purposes of making our work better, lighter, more productive, and for gaining more time to do work that requires our natural intelligence, judgement, and all those things for which we didn’t have time so far.

Second, people managers should release their time to build psychological contracts with their employees. So instead of spending 70-80% of their time doing mundane, manual work, the manager of the future would be doing what the machine can never do. She or he would be open to emoting, to feeling, and to becoming the counsellor, the coach, the partner, and the human element in the workplace.

People managers of the future will be emotionally intelligent leaders. They will become more mindful in their practice. They will treat human beings as unique, distinct individuals. They will see their task as unleashing the potential of their people. They will not be managers who drive, direct, instruct, and review but rather those who coach, enable, and empower their colleagues. Technology will provide us a new opportunity to free ourselves from mundane matters.

Lastly, at the intersection of technology and people management: the next generation people manager will face some challenges. The biggest challenge will be to pay balanced attention to both robots and humans. For instance, future people managers in a car factory would consider robots part of their headcount, because the robots would be doing the work that previously human beings were doing. In the future in manufacturing, information technology (IT) and many other domains, the workforce will become robots and humans. The ability to manage a new composite workforce where technology and human beings share the workload, I think this would be an interesting new challenge. It would be important to avoid overlaps, conflicts, erosion of productivity due to the lack of an ability to allocate work more rationally between people and machines. So far, you learned only to manage people, and now you need to learn to manage machines in relation to people.

From the empathy angle, we are now engaging with inclusion of varied demographics into the workforce, whether the diversity be in sexual orientation, gender or disability. Is India poised to handle this growing workplace diversity?

Chandrasekhar Sripada: India has a unique position. Indian society has far more diversity than elsewhere in the world. The known constituencies like disability, gender and sexual orientation are one set. Much of the diversity that we take for granted—and it is a great credit to the Indian cultural and societal evolution—is linguistic diversity. Another form of diversity which we don’t acknowledge but should is the divide between the rural and the urban. With the amount of migration happening from rural societies into urban areas, there is also a distinct set of people who would have to be brought in from Tier 4 cities into Tier 2 and then to Tier 1 cities and assimilated into the metropolitan mainstream. Ethnicity, religion, language, state, culture, food habits, caste—there are a million ways in which Indian society is diverse.

The good news is, over the centuries, the story of Indian civilisation has been about welcoming, creating and assimilating many diverse religions, cultures and traditions. We speak three to four languages and relate to each other with far greater ease than, say, a German and French person would. In fact, the differences between Bengal and Kerala would be far bigger than the difference between Germany and France. But the ease with which two Indians from different states would meet and mingle is to the credit of the Indian society. Therefore, India is more naturally equipped to handle diversity.

But the real diversity—and this is a challenge for the world, and not just for India—is not only physical. It is cognitive diversity. Instead of obsessing with the obvious differences in physical abilities, caste, or creed, we should ask the question: how does this person think differently? Leaders have to be aware of the differences that people bring because they are different at a subtler level of thought, feeling, and emotion.

As we understand people, we start seeing new possibilities. In Procter and Gamble, when women worked on certain products, those products got better at addressing customer needs. This was not politically correct inclusion, but a thoughtful strategy of leveraging cognitive diversity. It is time leaders moved beyond the political correctness around diversity and sought to harness cognitive diversity by celebrating differences.

Is India Inc poised for this? Not yet.

The Government of India (GOI) has opened Joint Secretary positions for lateral hires from the private sector. How do you anticipate this private-public sector collaboration to play out?

Chandrasekhar Sripada: This is a welcome move. From the human capital perspective, we should view talent as a portfolio of capabilities. For example, we have wealth portfolios with various asset classes. Different asset classes bring different yields and values. So, a good fund manager knows how to rejig and carefully balance the portfolio based on your needs. Similarly, in human capital, I see talent as a portfolio. There is no monopoly on talent by any one segment of people. In fact, the richer application of talent comes with cross-fertilisation. So, the GOI’s decision to bring in people from the private sector and academics into important positions is a welcome move. It will enrich the government’s talent portfolio.

However, we should ensure that the selection criteria are transparent. They should meet the purpose for which the hiring is happening. Merely saying that GOI is hiring Joint Secretaries might not serve the purpose fully. Joint Secretary is a rank, or a way of giving authority of a certain kind to a person. For example, you could be hiring somebody to create policies in the field of skill development, transportation, or highways. And the individual just happens to be holding the title called Joint Secretary. The problem is, we all tend to hire for positions, when we should be hiring for roles. Roles require competencies. Competencies give you the more objective basis for assessing people.

Therefore, I would recommend that GOI reposition the hiring process around the competencies and domain experience that different roles in government would require. Hiring proven talent from diverse sources will enrich the government. It is a different matter that such hires will be given the rank and authority of a Joint Secretary. Hiring should be about contribution and not about ranks.

Lastly, hiring new people with new competencies and backgrounds is relatively easy. Helping them succeed is the harder issue. I would expect GOI to set up a talent ecosystem and a leadership context where these new hires will be allowed to perform and encouraged to succeed.

Thank you for sharing your thoughts on emerging human capital trends.

About the Interviewer:

Yogini Joglekar is a Consultant with the Centre for Learning and Management Practice at ISB.

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